Four freeways running through Spain’s Catalonia and Aragón regions last night became free of charge, slightly ahead of a September 1 deadline when Abertis, the road manager, eliminated tolls after decades of charging drivers for access.
No more fees will be collected on more than 550 kilometers of high-capacity roads on the state-owned AP-7 (Tarragona-La Jonquera section) and AP-2 (Zaragoza-El Vendrell), as well as on the Catalonia-owned C-32 (Barcelona-Blanes) and C-33 (Barcelona-Montmeló).
At a joint news conference of central and regional officials on Tuesday, Spanish Transportation Minister Raquel Sánchez said that the removal of tolls on the state-owned roads will save drivers a collective €752 million a year (€662 million in Catalonia and €90 million in Aragón).
But she added that the Spanish government will seek ways to meet the European Union’s demands for some form of payment on all high-capacity roads. Sánchez said the executive is “working on a new formula” that will be the same across the national territory.
The newly “liberated” roads add to a growing list of tolls lifted in recent years due to expiring concessions that the government has chosen not to renew. In November 2018, the Burgos-Armiñon stretch of the AP-1 became free of charge, followed in 2020 by the Tarragona-Alicante section of the AP-7 and the Sevilla-Cádiz section of the AP-4, for a total of more than a thousand kilometers.
Despite acknowledging that drivers will welcome the move, Catalonia’s deputy premier Jordi Puigneró adopted a tough tone at the joint news conference. “We celebrate the end of state tolls and share in the joy, but we will not say thank you,” stated Puigneró, of the separatist party Together for Catalonia. “It is the [Spanish] state that must apologize to us for an extended plunder lasting nearly 50 years during which hardly any free-of-charge freeways have been built in Catalonia.” Four paying toll roads remain in the region, all owned by the Catalan government.
The new scenario is expected to cause an increase in private vehicle traffic, yet no incentives for public transit use have been introduced. “There will be more traffic in Barcelona and land-based [public] transportation will work less well,” warned Javier Ortigosa, a traffic engineering and sustainable mobility expert who thinks there could be the same kind of traffic boom in the Catalan capital as back when the ring roads became operative. “The idea had been to scatter the cars, but over the years they have doubled,” he complained.
Passenger volume on public transportation is still far from pre-pandemic levels, and an association called Platform for Public Transportation feels that the decision to eliminate tolls should have come with additional incentives for people to use the train, bus and metro systems.
“It is of extreme concern that those toll roads have been freed up without incentives for public transportation,” said association president Adrià Ramírez. “This was the right time, but we find the same lack of initiative as usual.” Ramírez acknowledged that short-distance commutes are unlikely to change very much, but said long-distance journeys could be a different story. “When you had to pay €8 in tolls, it was worth it to take the train, but now maybe not so much,” agreed Ortigosa.
Álvaro Nicolás, a mobility expert at the civil engineer association Colegio de Ingenieros de Caminos, said that the most likely effect of the toll elimination is simply that congested roads will now have less traffic as some drivers move to the newly freed up motorways.
English version by Susana Urra.